Shanshan Feng's game is on the rise
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Shanshan Feng says she usually doesn't invite many folks to come listen to her karaoke sessions. She explains her love for singing considerably outpaces her actual talent.
OK, but how about stand-up comedy? Feng has such a breezy, quick, natural sense of humor -- even in a second language -- that it's hard to stop smiling when she takes the microphone, as she did Tuesday at Locust Hill Country Club, site of the LPGA Championship.
As defending champion here, she spoke with the media about the state of her game (on the rise; she finished second last week), what's going well (she's using new clubs and really likes them), and what kind of "star" she is back home in China (we'll save that one-liner for a little later in the story).
The LPGA Championship, the second major of the season for the women, begins Thursday. Last year here, Feng became the first player from mainland China to win an LPGA title. Afterward, she talked about how her host family at the tournament had fixed breakfast for her before the final round, and one of the eggs cracked for the meal had two yolks. Asked then if she believed in the superstition that a double-yoked egg was an omen of good luck, Feng joked, "When it works, I believe it."
Her name is pronounced "Shen-shen Fung," but many versions of it fly around from native English speakers who are clueless about Chinese. Feng can get a laugh out of that, because she can see the humor in just about anything.
That, combined with an affinity for learning languages, makes Feng one of the better communicators you'll find on the internationally diverse LPGA tour. She's very good at English and also has learned some Korean and Japanese.
"When they talk, I can pick some things up and feel happy," she said, smiling. "Maybe I heard some secrets."
Spanish, though, is a lot more of a challenge.
"I can't really roll my tongue," Feng said.
Rolling the golf ball, though, has been something she's excelled at. She had five birdies in the final round here in 2012 and won by 2 strokes.
Tuesday, she recalled her thoughts as she faced a par putt on the 72nd hole here last year. The thought that came into her head was of South Korea's I.K. Kim, who had missed a 1-foot putt that would have given her the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Yikes! Not the thing to visualize … or was it? Because it worked.
"I was like, 'I don't want to be the second I.K.,'" Feng said. "'I've worked so hard here, I don't want to waste it all. I have to make it.' So I made it."
Feng is now No. 7 in the Rolex world rankings, and her best finish this season is a tie for second. Last week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, she was runner-up to the player who was one of her golf idols, Australia's Karrie Webb.
"My iron shots were really accurate, and my short game was good," Feng said. "I would say the clubs helped a lot. It gave me a lot of confidence. I think I'm ready for this week."
The past eight major championships on the LPGA Tour have been won by Asian players. Some have outgoing, conversational personalities, like Feng and Taiwan's Yani Tseng. Others, like current world No. 1 Inbee Park of South Korea, are not quite as gregarious -- in part, certainly, because of their comfort level with English.
That's not a barrier with Feng, who regularly cracks up American players she's grouped with.
"She'll tell jokes and laugh a lot," Stacy Lewis said. "She's fun to play with, actually, because you never know what she's going to say. When she's not playing well [on a certain day], she's pretty honest with you. She's OK with that and goes about her merry way. But she played great last week, and she's getting it going for the majors."
Feng, 23, has said that her friend Tseng -- who is six and half months older -- has long been her "target," as in, the player she hopes to be as good as someday. Tseng has won 15 LPGA titles, five of them majors, and already has crossed the $9 million mark in career prize money.
Tseng lost her No. 1 ranking this year after 109 consecutive weeks on that perch, and her last win was in March 2012. Still, Feng sees Tseng's success as a motivator, while Feng herself is an inspiration to young players back in China.
The growth of golf in the world's most populous nation has been boosted by both Feng and teen phenom Guan Tianlang, who competed at the Masters in April. He and Feng are from the same city, Guangzhou. With golf being added to the Summer Olympics in 2016, even more resources have been steered toward the sport in China.
"Maybe not in 2016," Feng said, " but maybe [by] 2020 or so, I think China will become one of the most competitive countries in golf."
Another sign of China's emergence in the sport is that the LPGA has added an event there, debuting this year. The Beijing tournament will start the Asian stretch of LPGA tournaments in the fall, which includes visits to Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
When Tseng has played at home in Taiwan, where she is a national heroine, she's mobbed by fans. Asked if she expected the same adoration when she plays in China, Feng grinned.
"No, I don't think so," Feng said. "Yani's like a rock star in Taiwan. Me in China … I can still have a hamburger and a Coke and eat on the street and nobody would recognize me."
OK, maybe, but out on the golf course in Beijing, Feng surely will be a big attraction.
"I want to go see what it's like," Lewis said of the China tournament in October. "I'm sure for Shanshan, it will be a crazy week."
This week, though, will be about Feng trying to recapture the groove she got into last year at Locust Hill. Nobody has repeated as LPGA Championship winner since Annika Sorenstam won three in a row in 2003-05, but Feng likes the way she's playing. And she noticed something Tuesday that made her feel even more confident: the tournament trophy, which dates to 1955.
"I see my name on it right now," she said, gazing at the silver prize. "Last year, it didn't have my name on it."